Sunday, July 03, 2005

Once Upon a Time in the West

Yesterday I watched Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Last summer, I watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and I liked it, but felt it was a bit too long, not quite engaging enough to justify a two and a half hour running time. Still, a year later, I decided to check out the critically beloved Once Upon a Time in the West and I'm glad I did.

Lately, both online and out in the world, I've been having a lot of discussions about the direction of the film industry, particularly what's happening in blockbuster filmmaking. I'm seeing Batman Begins get a ton of love, when it's an incredibly flawed film. This article on Ninthart covers a lot of my feelings on the film, most notably here:

The direction was lacklustre and utterly bland, cutting to close-up during any fight and rendering it intelligible. The utterly pointless addition of Katie Holmes was far more intrusive than I had expected. The film sagged horribly in what should have been the most exciting part, the 'Becoming Batman' section. The dialogue was appallingly bad and in a year when George Lucas has been getting such bad press for his own dialogue, I'm shocked this film has been given a free pass. And Christian Bale's Batman was just trying too hard.

Anyway, I've probably said enough about Batman Begins, it's not the film's fault, it's the time it was born into. Nolan created a film that's one day going to be noted for just how "00s" the film is, in terms of pacing, action sequences and character roles. But, alas, the 00s is not the best time for action filmmaking, here in the States at least. I think people making films today could learn a lot by looking at what works in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Start this movie up and the first thing you'll notice is just how different the pacing is. The credits roll over people just standing around a train station, waiting for something to happen. The sequence is admittedly a bit long, but it does a good job of building your anticipation about what's to happen. The first real shock in this movie for me was seeing the family get killed. It's a really well done scene, culminating in one of the most incredible shots I've seen in any movie: Frank's men emerging from the bush as the young boy looks on. The music there is phenomenal, creating a really unique visual moment.

This film is all about the combination of the visual and music to create stunning moments. Ennio Morricone's score here is even better than his more iconic work on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The cutting guitars on Harmonica's theme and the female chorus over lush strings for Jill are the most notable cues, rearranged throughout the film to suit the scene.

In TGTB&TU, it was the music that kept me interested in the movie. Here, the visuals are so good that they match or eclipse Morricone's work. The best sequence in the film is the showdown between Harmonica and Frank at the end. Suspense is built up over a very long preamble in which they circle each other, have a flashback and just stare at each other before the single shot that decides the contest is fired. Leone's trademark extreme closeups work wonderfully here, Bronson and Fonda both look aged and worn down, believable warriors. In action sequences, it's usually the build up that's more important than the sequence itself, and that's certainly the case here. The actual action takes a couple of seconds, but the buildup is quite long, and it's the most enjoyable thing in the film. The combination of music and visual is perfect.

The plot here is less important, but it's still interesting. I liked Jill's story, and it was interesting to see such a strong female character in what's traditionally a male-dominated genre. The film is paced in a very strange way, you don't really become aware of the main story until about 45 minutes into the movie. This makes it a bit tough to follow the beginning, because you're sort of drifting. Even after seeing the rest of the movie, I'm a bit unclear on how the opening sequence tied into the rest of the plot. Events are sometimes a bit unnecessarily convoluted, and that can make it difficult to lose yourself in the filmmaking. Though, I think that's a problem that will be lessened on repeat viewings. Much like a Wong Kar-Wai film, on the first viewing, I got more of a feeling, an atmosphere, and on subsequent viewings I'll be able to pick up more of the plot.

One interesting thing in this film was seeing Jason Robards in his prime. The only thing I'd seen him in previously was Magnolia, he's looking a bit more spry here. Bronson's not the best actor, but his face is so good, he does what he needs to to fit the role.

So, what the film's ultimately about is the end of the archetypal gunslinger. Men like Harmonica and Frank have no place in the new world that Jill is building, that's why Frank must die and Harmonica has to leave at the end. They'll keep racing beyond the railroad, eventually running out of room to run, and that's when the archetypal west will be gone. The film's closing shot covers this, starting on Jill bringing water to the workers building her town, then panning over to the still untouched landscape, a landscape that will eventually also be civilized.

From a personal point of view, it was cool to see one of the works that influenced Stephen King's Dark Tower series. It gives you a better picture of the sort of guy he had in mind when he created Roland, a character who shares the values of a Harmonica or Cheyenne, especially in the early books.

On the whole, this was a fabulous film. It might have been a bit too long, but I was never bored despite the 165 minute running time. This film is one of the best marriages of visual to music that I've ever seen. I love the way that the film's style draws you deeper into the diegesis, rather than serving solely as its own attraction. You usually don't see a period film that's so bold with its stylistic innovation, but Leone pulls it off and creates a film that's still riveting to watch today.

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